September 16, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn (24) slides into third safely before the tag by Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (20) in the seventh inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

The Case for Michael Bourn

For at least a year now, much has been made of the Nationals’ need for a true leadoff hitter. Jayson Werthserved very well in that spot for the greater part of the 2012 season, posting a hearty .387 OBP, but he is no base-stealing threat, nor does he play a premium defensive position. His bat, with his .300 average and .440 slugging percentage, would be much more valuable in the heart of the lineup, as he could drive in the faster batters already on base and would not need to steal bases given that there would be runners ahead of him. The question remains, however: if Werth won’t hit leadoff, who should?

The Nationals’ lineup is, as it stands, already quite full. The only spots that could potentially change are the outfield and first base. If Adam LaRoche re-signs, then the lineup is essentially locked, with him at first and an outfield of Morse/Harper/Werth, unless the team decides to trade Morse. If LaRoche does not re-sign, however, a world of possibilities is opened. The team could sign another first baseman-type player, and has reportedly expressed interest in Nick Swisher. However, this does not address the need for a leadoff hitter. The only way in which this need could be addressed is if the team either trades Morse or does not re-sign LaRoche, and then signs Michael Bourn.

Last season with the Braves, Bourn hit .274/.348/.391. At first glance, these numbers are not particularly impressive. Werth’s OBP and slugging were both significantly higher. However, Bourn also stole 42 bases, good for second in the NL. He was also a premier defensive player, committing only two errors all season despite playing the third-most innings among NL outfielders. He led baseball in UZR/150 at 22.5; meaning that he saved 22.5 runs more than the average MLB outfielder. As an overall contributor, Bourn finished 13th in baseball with 6.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Fangraphs, a full run more than the top National, Ian Desmond, who had 5.4 WAR. Bourn would be a huge upgrade over Harper defensively in center, and a boon to the top of the lineup as well.

While Bourn is a force atop the lineup, he has his drawbacks as well. One of the biggest knocks against him is that he strikes out a lot, 155 times in 2012, or in more than 20% of his plate appearances. The main reason that a high strikeout rate is bad is that while some outs in play can score runners, such as sacrifice flies, strikeouts cannot. As the leadoff hitter, however, Bourn will not often have to hit with runners on base, which means that strikeouts are not as much of a problem as they would be for any other player. Critics will also note that 2013 will be Bourn’s age 30 season, and speed is the first skill to depart as a player ages. While Bourn may be 30, he is a relatively young 30. His rookie season was his age 24 season, which means that he has less wear-and-tear on him than a similar player whose major league debut came at age 21 or 22.

The final criticism of Bourn is that he will command a large salary, which is undoubtedly true. Former Nationals GM and ESPN columnist Jim Bowden predicted that Bourn would sign a 5 year, $75M deal, paying him $15M a year. The issue here is not that the Nationals cannot afford this deal, which they can. The Lerners are baseball’s richest owners, and can foot any bill. The concern is that Bourn may not be worth the money. The standard across baseball is to pay approximately $5M per Win Above Replacement. By that logic, Bourn’s 2012 season was worth over $30M. If he can produce at a similar level going forward, then the deal would be a bargain. The break-even point for this deal would be 3 WAR, a benchmark that Bourn has met for each of the last four seasons. If Bourn’s production does not suddenly drop precipitously, a deal like that would be within reason. Signing Bourn to a long-term deal in center would also lock down the entire Nats outfield for the foreseeable future, turning promising prospects such as Brian Goodwin into valuable trade chips with which the Nationals can improve other positions.

Across the board, Bourn is a perfect fit for the Nats. He fits their needs, his weaknesses are few and far between, and best of all: signing him significantly weakens his former team and the Nats’ fierce division rival, the Atlanta Braves. Adding Bourn would be a huge step forward for the Nats, and he could be a significant piece of a championship team in 2013.

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  • Todd Boss

    Why does “playing a premium position” and “batting leadoff” need to go together? Werth’s split line batting leadoff: .309/.388/.450. And he’s averaging 17 steals per 162 games in his career, had 19 his first season and was on pace for about that this season. If Werth wants to continue batting leadoff, I’m happy with it.

    Also, why would the team possibly spend $75M to acquire a center fielder when they already have an excellent center fielder in Harper?? Wouldn’t we be completely wasting Harper’s defensive skills (speaking of playing a premium position) by moving him to a corner outfield spot? Go check the UZR/150 numbers; Harper was nearly as good in his 800+ innings in center as Bourn was. And Harper in arguably has a better arm. So I’ll dispute your quote “Bourn would be a huge upgrade” over Harper.

    To say nothing of the fact that Bourn will be 30 next year, and spending money to acquire aging “fast” players has a history of backfiring as those players (especially on the wrong side of 30) age badly. Bourn is a 90 OPS+ player for his career! That mean’s offensively he’s a 10% downgrade from a MLB average player and he’s already set to enter his decline years.

    I think Bourn would be a HUGE mistake. I would much rather see the team allocate that money towards a 5th starter or towards a corner outfielder on a shorter term contract.

    • Joe Seamhead

      Wow! I agree with both of you 100%, which isn’t too foten. No Bourn.

    • Joe Seamhead

      I agree with both of you 100% peric and Todd Boss. No Bourn. Moving Harper to LF is a waste of his speed and his arm, and he has stated that he doesn’t get good reads in right. Also, though Bourn had 41 steals last year, that was down about 20 from the year before, yet he got caught about the same number of times. Tick-tock.

  • Todd Boss

    Oh, and if you want to use the argument that Harper “needs to move to a corner outfield spot” because he’s such a big guy (a lazy common argument I continue to see national writers use) and his body can’t handle center field, then lets look at some stats:

    - Harper listed as 6’3″ 215.

    - 9 time gold glove winning CF Torii Hunter: 6’2″ 225

    - 10 time gold glove winning CF Andruw Jones:6’1″ 225

    -10 time gold glove winning CF Ken Griffey JR; 6’3″ 195

    To say nothing of the fact that NBA players routinely play point guard at heights and weights far above Harper, but nobody ever talks about how NBA players need to move off of a strenuous position because its “tough” on their bodies. LeBron James is 6’8″ 250lb and plays four positions on the floor.

    If Harper continues to grow and suddenly is 6’5″ 245 sure I’ll buy the argument. But until then he’s a 20yr old kid who hasn’t come close to reaching his physical peak and seems to have no problem covering center. I see no reason he can’t adequately play center field for the next decade.

  • PieroB

    You’re living on Giggleman’s Island in the Land of Cardinal’s way … smart ball small brain baseball.
    1. Davey Johnson believes in the Earl Weaver or the Orioles way no the Lou Brock, Maury Wills way. Why? He doesn’t like to take the risk stealing bases. He prefers aggressive base running on hits and waiting for those hits. It seems to work given the number of runs Bryce Harper scored. Also, NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO BUNT. Wills was a professional bunter no one has come along and honed the skill the way the speed burner Dodgers did and especially Wills. And so bunts usually equal outs.

    Davey doesn’t believe in giving away outs. Riggleman did. On sacrifices, stealing bases. What was Riggleman’s record again? What is Davey’s record? How many of the teams he managed had losing records? While Riggleman has the worst winning percentage of any major league manager since 1901.

    Bourn doesn’t fit. Period.

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